Friday, November 1, 2013

Climate Change is Real...And?

On Zen Throw Down, my 'mini-rants' are posts in which I go off about an issue in contemporary culture. It's a great outlet for me, because I hot button debates are often so politicized that it's pointless to have them with people. The debate isn't about ideas; it's an excuse for liberals and conservatives to score points off each other.

Anyway on to the mini-rant.

I guess the place to start is to state that there is no question climate change is happening. We know this because Earth's climate has always undergone change. This is a scientific and historical fact, so claiming there is no climate change is about as intelligent as claiming the Earth is flat.

Source: USGRCP (2009)
What I object to is the content of discourse. For example, this chart purports to quantify the temperature changes we would have if the only driver was 'natural forces'. Arrgh!!! Where do I start? First of all, the idea that human impact on the environment is somehow 'unnatural' is wrong. We are a species of life on this planet just like all the others and, as with most successful species in Earth's history, we impact our environment. For example, Earth's atmosphere contained little oxygen for a huge chunk of it's early history (we're talking hundreds of millions of years). This changed when cyanobacteria arose, thrived, and for millions of years polluted the air with their waste: oxygen. Was this 'unnatural'? No. Did it make things difficult or impossible for some forms of life that existed before cyanobacteria. Probably. But so what? One species cup of tea is another species cup of hemlock. Some other reasons I'm skeptical of this chart and the whole man vs. nature dialogue:

  1. It's unlikely we can isolate 'human effects' from 'natural forces' in a model like this, because the planet's climate is a complex machine that we don't fully understand. 
  2. How can anyone seriously believe that all the upward change is due to human activity alone? This would mean there are no natural forces that lead to increases in average temperature. What about sunspot cycles? Volcanic eruptions? Global weather patterns? 
  3. Just me, but any theory that suggests humans are somehow all-important smacks of arrogance, not good science. This kind of arrogance is what led to theories like geocentrism, so I tend to look askance at such claims.

So much for the basic skepticism I bring to this discussion. Now let's move to the important stuff: the data. And then after we peruse it, we can destroy the conclusions being bandied about regarding climate change. In so doing I promise you one thing: by the end of this mini-rant - whatever your political stripes are - you will not be happy with what I have to say. So if you only like to read things you agree with, stop now.

From Bart Verheggen's blog: My View On Climate Change
Here we have a chart showing temperature anomalies since 1880. To be clear, I make no claims about the accuracy of this data or the thinking that went into pulling it. I selected it because it represents the conventional wisdom on the subject. I must also state that I do not know what Mr. Verheggen's beliefs are regarding climate change. Again, I'm using his chart only because it describes the commonly accepted data. In debates, I always think it's best to accept my opponent's data at face value because, if you can destroy them with their own arguments, they can't get back up again.

So, looking at this chart, the obvious interpretation is that temperatures are going up and they are much higher than they have been in the past. One could argue that the shift is small, especially as it relates to something with as many unpredictable and little understood inputs as global climate. However, let's not quibble. For the sake of argument let's accept the data and the conclusion that global temperature is going up and that it's higher now than at any point in this chart. After all, this is what leads to the alarm about global climate change.

My argument is that to use this data to draw that conclusion, even accepting everything I have mentioned above, is wrong. First, we need to dispense with an unstated - but nevertheless accepted - notion that I feel lies under all the climate change discussion: that climate change is somehow abnormal. The truth is that climate change is not a recent phenomenon that has popped up in the last century thanks to humans. Climate change is the norm on planet Earth. It's totally natural and would be happening even if humans had never discovered fossil fuel. In it's history, the Earth has been a whole lot hotter than it is now and it has been colder. For a good portion of Earth's history, there were no polar ice caps. So while the fact ice caps are shrinking poses significant problems for humans and indeed many other kinds of life, it is not something especially novel. In contrast, the 'Snowball Earth' theory suggests that Earth has been plunged several times into a deep freeze in which the entire surface of our planet was covered in ice sheets (or perhaps slush sheets). So climate change is normal, and it can be extreme. It's not pleasant to think 'Mother Earth' isn't terribly maternal, but some changes in climate have been so extreme that mass extinctions occurred. In fact, most life that has risen on Earth is extinct and most of these extinctions happened before humans existed (another blow to our species' self-importance). So the bottom line is that if you want a stable climate, then you should move to the Moon because stability has never been an option on Earth.

Now that we have that underlying assumption cleared up, let's dispense with the argument the scare mongers explicitly raise: climate change we see in the last century is somehow abnormal. More specifically, the rate of the change is somehow abnormal. If you look at the temperature chart above, you might buy into this voodoo. However, the problem is that the chart only shows data for about 100 years. Drawing conclusions about climate change from such a short time scale is akin to looking at three feet of concrete sidewalk in front of you and saying the surface of the entire planet is paved in concrete. The point being that the time scale of this data is near-sighted (and sometimes probably intentionally so to make it scarier).

We have to remember that the Earth is not a dollhouse. The purpose of climate is not to create a convenient setting for human life. Climate is a complex - purposeless - system influenced by multiple inputs that cause short term fluctuations and accumulate to affect real change on huge timescales. Events like ice ages, sunspot cycles, volcanic eruptions, and fossil fuel emissions have short term impacts, but they are blips in the trend and not meaningful long term. To illustrate, let's look at our current temperature within the correct, long-term time scale. The chart at right illustrates average global temperatures back to the dawn of life (today is at the top). Warm average temperatures are on the left and cool average temperatures are on the right. [For us 'mericans, 12C is 54F and 22C is 72F. Remember that's average global temperature, so 72F is hot, hot, hot!]

This full picture tells us a lot of things, but the most important for this discussion is that the current temperature is actually quite cool. One might even say the Earth is due for a warm-up after millions of years of cooling. [Note for context: the Tertiary Period began 65 million years ago, right after the dinosaurs went extinct]. One has to ask if, after about 30 million years of cooling, whether it isn't a bit silly to get worked up over the tiny, short term lift shown in the first chart? If all our fossil fuel emissions and other 'unnatural' behavior hasn't raised the average temperature by even 1 degree C in 100 years, then humans can't be that important.

Scare mongers have an answer to this. They produce charts extrapolating climate change into the future. Extrapolations are legitimate mathematical tools, but too often they are done by taking the existing trend and running it out as if the factors that give rise to the trend are not changed. Since we do not totally understand climate change, this seems a bit dicey. But more importantly, I would suggest it is almost certain the factors that give rise to the warming trend will change. Consider: even within the 100 years, human technology has moved from coal to oil to a mix of oil, nuclear, and clean energy. There's no reason to think fossil fuel emissions will be the same for the next twenty years, let alone the next century.

In summation, my opinion is climate change is happening but that our contribution to it is minimal and, even if it weren't, we've passed the hump of the worst behavior. As a result, there is little we can do to stop what changes are occurring, and we certainly have no power to save the planet from its next climate crisis (which, by the way, may not occur for thousands of years). The whole issue has been blown way out of proportion!

Now, if you are a conservative reader, here's where you stop liking what I have to say. Just because we have minimal impact on climate change does not mean we can't make a colossal mess of our environment in the short term. As I pointed out before, successful species impact environment. That has always been true. So we will hurt the environment if we indiscriminately burn fossil fuels, spill oil into the oceans, spray aerosols all day, and negligently dump chemicals into the water supply. It's the same thing as spraying an anthill with pesticides; the ants die when their environment is polluted. The only issue with the analogy is that the ants have an out humans do not. They live in one little hill, so they can move over a few feet and start all over. Humans societies occupy huge spaces, and we only have one planet, atmosphere, and hydrosphere to rely on. If we ruin it, we're done. By the way, you could also argue that ants aren't stupid enough to dump pesticide into their own living space while humans...ahem, let's move on.

And it's not like this is just an opinion. To see what things would look like without the restraints those pesky environmentalists, all you've got to do is look at China. There are photos all over the web about the debilitating smog clouds there. It gets so bad that people sometimes return from traveling there coughing blood from exposure to...whatever it is that's in that smog. So, regardless of the truth or fiction of global climate change, smog and pollutants can make our environment in the here and now very unhealthy. Since we have a vested interest in an environment that sustains a diversity of life (e.g., fish, cows, and crops), we are obligated to curtail actions that harm the environment.

The argument from capitalists is that environmentalism hurts business profits. Yes, it does. But business profits are not the only consideration in the universe. What the question boils down to for capitalists is essentially: Do you want to be the guy who smokes his cigarette and blows the smoke right into everyone's face and makes them cough? Thankfully, most business people get the problem and would answer 'no' to that question. However, there are some (mostly the born-again, Tea party variety...mostly) who would answer 'yes' or say they don't care if they make people cough by blowing smoke in their faces. They have every right to feel that way, as we are all entitled to our opinions. However, if that is how you feel, you really should get over being shocked that people treat you like a selfish moronic douchebag and try to pass laws to protect themselves from your irresponsible greed. Note to environmentalists: you'll be taken far more seriously by sensible capitalists if you avoid hysterical climate change predictions and focus on environmental impacts that actually exist.

In conclusion, climate change is not something to be concerned about as it occurs on long time scales. If it ever did occur on a short time frame, we wouldn't need scientists to tell us it was happening. Further, we would be unlikely to have caused it and even less likely to have any power to stop it. So don't wig out about a cool summer or a warm winter when you get one. Don't fret that every change in our environment is some omen of doom brought about by the evil of humans. Just support efforts to end practices we know are detrimental to our natural resources; that's the problem which actually affects us and we can do something about.

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